Believe it or not surfing the Internet, exchanging email and faxing on a desktop PC is relatively easy nowadays. That’s cold comfort if you’re struggling to configure Windows, a troublesome browser program or dealing with an awkward Internet Service Provider, but even in the darkest moments of your battle to get on-line you will not have experienced one tenth the misery and suffering of someone attempting to establish a connection to the Internet using a laptop PC and a cellular mobile phone!

Of course there are exceptions and a lucky few manage to get everything up and running first time and it has to be said that it’s a lot easier than it used to be, but the plain fact is current mobile phone technology is simply not up to the job and all attempts to make it work involve fudge and compromise. This week we’ll look at why it is so difficult and the sort of kit you need; next week how to make it all work.

There are two fundamental problems. Firstly the GSM and PCN digital cellphone networks we have in the UK were never designed to carry high-speed data traffic. The best they can manage at the moment is 9600 bits per second (bps) or between a quarter and a sixth the speed of a normal landline, and that’s on a very good day with the wind in the right direction! Even if you manage to get a strong stable signal web pages can still take an age to download. With peak time call charges on some tariffs costing 50p or more a minute, web surfing can be a horrifically expensive business so unless someone else is paying for the calls it’s best confined to plain text emailing.

Second, there are the hoops that you have to go through, to connect a cellphone to a PC. Conventional modems are no use; they’re designed to convert PC data into audible tones that can be sent down analogue telephone lines. Unfortunately you can’t simply squirt data from a PC into a phone, and to make matters worse there’s no such thing as standardisation, when it comes to the connectors on mobile phones, and PCs for that matter.

Moves are afoot to increase cellular telephone data transfer rates. Orange is upgrading its network to operate at up to 28,000 bps by stripping out a lot of the error correction using a technique known as High Speed Circuit Switched Data (HSCSD). The other networks are testing a system called General Packet Radio Service (GPRS), which has a claimed top speed of more than 40000 bps and the prospect of permanent data connection. Both are still some way off moreover it’s by no means certain that they will work with existing phones and you can be sure it will involve a good deal of extra expense.

PC to phone connections are a nightmare and the cellphone in question has to be ‘data compatible’. Most are these days but if yours is more than three or four years old  or a very basic model on a low cost tariff it might be time to upgrade. As far as the PC is concerned the most straightforward option is a Windows or Apple Mac laptop or notebook that can run all of your usual browser and email software. The next best thing is a Windows CE or Psion palmtop PC. Windows CE includes cut-down or ‘pocket’ versions of Internet Explorer and Outlook Express, which makes life easier if you’re accustomed to Windows applications; Psion palmtops are also very simple to use but only the Series 5 and 7 models are email and Internet friendly. It is also possible to connect most keyboard-less organisers or PDAs (personal digital assistants) to mobile phones but that’s another scary subject for another day…

In order to physically connect a mobile phone to a PC the latter needs a PCMCIA (PC Card) slot or a serial port. The former is for a GSM or PCN ‘modem’ card, a lead from the card goes to the phone’s accessory socket. A card and cable can be quite expensive, between £150 and £250 is not uncommon, depending on the make and model of phone, how old it is and how well supported it is by third party accessory manufacturers. Be warned that you’ll probably have to chuck the whole lot away if you change or upgrade your phone due to the lack of standardisation on phone connectors and operating software.

A recent and more cost-effective alternative to the PC card is a ‘Soft Modem’. This is essentially a PC program that replicates the actions of a modem in software. They tend to be a lot cheaper than PC cards (typically £75 to £120, including the serial port to cellphone connecting lead), and they don’t consume anything like the power of a PC card modem (see Tip of the Week). The downside is that all of the cellphone soft modems that we are aware of are written for Windows 95/98 and Windows CE machines, it looks as though Mac users will have to wait.

On a few recent phones you can do away with the cable link altogether, these models have infra-red ports compatible with the IrDA ports on a lot of laptop, notebook and palmtop PCs. Specialist software is usually needed to utilise the link so check on the cost of this first as in some instances it can be almost as expensive as a PC Card or soft modem. One last thought. IR links sound like a great idea but they can be quite difficult to use in practice since the phone has to be carefully aligned to the PC’s IR window – a tricky balancing act if they’re both on your lap – and this may not be the best position for the phone if you’re in a marginal signal area.

Next week – Laptops and mobile phones Part 2 -- getting it to work




Global System for Mobile communications – digital cellular telephone system used by the Cellnet and Vodaphone networks in the UK and in more than 100 other countries


Personal Computer Memory Card International Association. Body responsible for PC card standards. PC cards are credit card sized modules (but a little thicker) used in laptops for modems, memory expansion and other peripherals


Personal Communications Network (aka GSM 1800) digital cellular telephone system used by Orange, One 2 One and Virgin in the UK and more than 100 other countries



If you are using a laptop or notebook with a PC card modem to connect to the Internet – via land-line or a mobile phone -- then make sure you remove the card when it is not being used, especially if you are running the PC on battery power. PC cards draw power from the PC’s battery, but what the instructions usually fail to mention is that the card is permanently on and draining the battery all of the time it’s in the slot.

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